Post #G21-058: Nuts, peppers, and storing up for winter. Part 2: Peppers

 

This is the gardening post I started to write yesterday.  We’ve finally hit full fall conditions here in Northern Virginia, with frost or near-frost conditions each night.  So this is a post about a few final things I learned in this year’s gardening.

In a nutshell:

  • If you are planting sweet potatoes, plant lots of slips, rather than counting on the spreading of the vines to fill your beds.
  • Radiant barrier works well to extend the fall season of low-to-the-ground crops such as lettuce.
  • Might as well plant what survives well, rather than struggle to keep ill-suited crops alive.

Sweet potato nuances:  In times of famine …

“In times of famine, we’d be glad to have that.”  That’s the polite phrase my wife uses when I pull some undesirable bit of produce out of the garden.

It’s far nicer than “who in their right mind would eat that”, yet makes the same point.  It can be said equally of the undesirable (e.g., eggplant), the ludicrously undersized (e.g., pinky-sized carrots), and the only-partially-edible (e.g., spade-marked potatoes).

But before I diss the sweet potato as mere famine-food, let me sing its praises.  As far as I can tell, it needs absolutely no care whatsoever, other than keeping it watered until it gets established.  It grows like a weed, covering its beds and shading out any actual weeds.  It puts out lovely little morning-glory-type flowers (as it is in the same family as morning glory).  It produces a lot of calories per square foot.  You can plant it beneath taller plants (such as sunflowers or peppers) and it’ll cover the ground beneath and produce tubers.  And harvest is easy — peel back the vines, scrape the soil, and you’ll see the tops of the sweet potatoes, ready to be pulled.

The yield of calories per square foot is only slightly lower than potatoes (per this reference).  If I’ve done the metric-to-ridiculous conversion correctly, that works out to just about 100 edible calories per square foot for either of them.

I learned one important thing about sweet potato cultivation this year:  Plant lots of slips.

This year, I grew them on a lark.  I had a few store-bought sweet potatoes that had gotten moldy, and I decided to try to grow slips from them rather than just toss them.  One out of three moldy potatoes yielded slips. But I figured it wouldn’t matter, as they would spread, and could be easily propagated by cutting the ends of vines and re-planting them.

So I started with just a handful of slips, and I let those spread to fill out the allotted portions of the beds.  I had heard that the vines would put out sweet potatoes wherever they set down roots, as they spread out.  I figured that I’d end up with a bed full of sweet potatoes, despite starting with just a few plants.

That was a mistake.  Sure, the vines will put out additional sweet potatoes as they spread.  But each vine only puts out big sweet potatoes at the original rooting spot for that vine.  As it went along, it produced additional sweet potatoes at various nodes along the vine.  But all of those “secondary” sweet potatoes were much smaller.  

Here’s my harvest, from about 50 square feet of raised beds.  (The hammer is  there to give a sense of scale.)

By weight, I ended up with a roughly 60/40 mix of sweet potatoes of the size you’d see in the store, and sweet potatoes of the “in times of famine” variety.  Large enough that they’re probably worth the effort of peeling and eating.  But only just.

The moral of the story?  In my climate (Zone 7), plant lots of slips.  You can grow them the lazy way, by planting a few slips and letting the vines run to cover the allotted bed space.  But you don’t want to.  That gives you a few good-sized sweet potatoes, and a whole lot of undersized ones.  I’d have done far better to have had three times as many slips, and kept the vines one-third as long.

Would I plant these again?  You bet.  I’m just going to plant them a little smarter next year.  Stick them in the ground in the spring.  Come back in the fall and harvest a significant amount of food.  That’s pretty hard to argue with.


Radiant barrier for late lettuce.

In April (Post #G21-018), I tested the idea of using a radiant barrier to keep raised beds warm at night.  And by tested, I mean tested.  I used data loggers to track temperatures overnight in beds with and without a radiant barrier cover.  The cover raised the bed temperatures by about 10F.

In Virginia, 10F should add about a month to the growing season.  In Vienna, VA, over the past 30 years, the median date at which nighttime temperatures reached 22F or lower was roughly December 8.  Compared to an expected first-frost date in the first week of November.

So, this fall, I’m putting that to use.  Beneath the radiant barrier above is a small patch of lettuce.  So far, practice validates theory.  My lettuce is still alive despite a couple of frosts so far this week.  I hope to grow that lettuce — albeit slowly (Post #G21-055) — into December.

In the end, I’m not sure this is any less effort than a hoop-house style greenhouse, set atop the bed.  (PVC pipes bent into semi-circles, anchored to the ground, and covered with clear plastic sheet.)  But I already own the pieces of radiant barrier, cut to size.  So radiant barrier it is.  It works.


Final harvest before winter:  Peppers and other stragglers.

With frost coming, I did that garden ritual of picking absolutely everything that was left in the garden.  That yielded the artfully arranged jumble you see above.  Or the more orderly view of the same pile, below.

This year, overwhelmingly, what was left was peppers.  Green to the left, banana to the right, cayenne at the top.  (The cayennes are green, but in theory they will turn red now that they’ve been picked.)

I’m ambivalent about peppers.  They don’t produce a lot of calories.  But they pickle well, they’re OK in salads, and they have the outstanding advantage of taking care of themselves.  Nothing around here seems to bother them much.

The lesson learned here is that I didn’t start out to have a pepper-heavy garden.  With the exception of the eggplant and beans, these are the long-term survivors of what I planted back in the spring/early summer.  With the lesson being that if I’m aiming for the best yield per unit of effort, maybe I need to change my attitude toward a family of produce that manages to last the whole year with no effort on my part.


Concluding remarks for the 2021 gardening year.

At the end of 2021, the only things left growing are some lettuce, and some garlic that I planted for harvest next year.  So now’s a good time to recap and tentatively plan for what I’ll grow next year.

Non-food crops:  Sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias.  These are nice for taking up the odd corners of the garden and attracting bees.  Zero upkeep other than watering the sunflowers in the driest part of the year.  The sunflowers require serious deer deterrents.  But they look nice, they feed the bird and the bees.  So why not grow them again.

Low-maintenance starchy root crops:  Potatoes, sweet potatoes.  Those are both a definite yes for next year.  So far those have been zero maintenance with good yield.  Fresh potatoes tasted particularly good.  I won’t bother with fingerling potatoes (turned out way too small).  I’ll plan to fill a bed with sweet potato slips, rather than count on the spread of the vines to fill the bed.

Tomatoes:  Yes, but.  I will continue to “follow the rules” as I did this year, including staking and trimming.  But I need to stagger the plantings by month so that I have them coming in all year.  I have a least-effort process for making small batches of tomato sauce down cold (Post #G21-046).  But if I’m going to end up making sauce, I should just go ahead and plant Romas or similar, as that should be much more energy-efficient (Post #G21-046).  The home-dried tomatoes were a big hit, so I will definitely do that again next year.  Given that, it’s well worth working out a practical way to do that with solar energy, in my humid climate (Post #G21-050).

Cucumbers and summer squash.  I’m going to give those a pass next year.  I expected these to be mainstays of my garden.  Instead, after one year of bliss, they turned out to be nothing but trouble.  I how have a garden area infested with cucumber beetles and targeted by squash vine borers.  I may consider growing parthenocarpic (self-fertile, no-bees-needed) cucumbers under netting.  But honestly, once you reach that point, it’s like Mother Nature is telling you to grow something else.

Butternut squash.  Those are a definite yes.  They seem to grow well, produce a reasonable yield of calories per square foot, and keep well once harvested.  And they’re tasty.  I can even keep the powdery mildew off them if I’m willing to put in the effort (Post #G20).  The traditional Waltham variety has beaten all others that I’ve tried.  And they all taste the same.  So I see no reason to plant anything but that.

Green beans.  Despite early failures, those are definitely on the list.  For some reason, my first two plantings got hit by common bean mosaic.  Only the last planting had a significant yield.  They are labor-intensive to pick, but when they grow, they produce a nice steady yield.

Peas.  Of course, peas.  No work, some yield.  Every year, I am tempted into growing “bush type” peas, figuring they need no support.  Every year, I regret that when I end up with a tangle of peas that is difficult to harvest and impossible to weed.  So my pledge is never to grow peas without support again.  No matter what.

Beets, rutabagas, turnips, radishes.  Maybe.  I’m taking radishes off the list.  Even if they grow to size, I just don’t like them enough to bother to grow them.  Beets have been a total failure due to failure-to-sprout.  But I now know this is a common problem in heavy soils, and I’ll try something new next year.  Rutabagas and turnips were a near-total-failure this year, for reasons unknown.  But the turnip varieties that grew were tasty — not at all like the turnips of my youth.  So these remain on the list, if only because, in theory, you can get an early spring crop of them.  I’m not going to bother with a fall crop because, unlike the spring crop, the fall-planted ones were devastated by insect or insects unknown.

Lettuce:  Yes.  I never had any luck at all in the past, but this year, the lettuce seemed to thrive with no intervention on my part.  Zero calories, but nice in salads.  I’ll go for both a spring and a fall crop again.

Peppers.  Well, I guess so.  I mean, they are edible, they produce a nice steady crop, and (this year, at least) they seem to grow with no intervention on my part.  They make a nice lacto-fermented pickle when there are more than can be eaten at once.  Now that I know that I can grow them, rather than pick up the first seed pack I see at the hardware store, I’ll do a little more research on sweet pepper varieties.

Others.  I’ll probably try okra again, but only if I can get my hands on some of the high-yield varieties.  Four mature Clemson Spineless never gave me enough pods at one time to do anything with.  Eggplant, I may try for a late-spring planting.  A planting for fall harvest yielded a lot of leaves and little in the way of anything edible.  I have a few herbs that may overwinter, and I have garlic started for harvest next year.  I may try walking onions next year.  Not that I’m particularly fond of them, but every other variety of onion I have tried has failed.  I’m still undecided on pumpkins, if only because they need a lot of space and a lot of time to mature.  If I plant them again, they are going in early, in the back corners of the yard.  And then if they survive, great, and if they don’t, so be it.

That’s it for this garden year.  I don’t anticipate posting anything about gardening until next year.  If then.

Post #G21-057: First frost, fall garden fail, COVID winter prep

 

Depending on exactly which forecast you believe, we should have our first frost in Vienna VA sometime in the next few days, possibly as early as tonight.  The National Weather Service is showing lows of 33F for the next few nights at Dulles Airport.  Other forecasts show lows of 31F.

A first frost date in the next few days puts us more-or-less exactly on the recent upward trend line.  This is the National Weather Service data for Dulles, VA. for the past few decades.

Not unexpected.

At this point, I can evaluate my “fall garden” as more-or-less a complete failure.  In theory, you can plant crops late in the summer, for fall harvest.  In practice, as far as I can tell, plants grow so slowly in the reduced temperatures and sunlight of the fall (Post #055) that the harvest is hardly worth the effort.

Plants that were already well-established continued to produce at reduced levels.  E.g., I got a few more peppers off the pepper plants.  But the plants that I put in at the end of August have produced more-or-less nothing.  A few eggplant, a few lettuce leaves.  Not worth the bother.

In hindsight, I note that a lot of the sites that I referenced said that you can plant certain crops late in the year.  And that was true.  I planted them, and, in theory, I got them in before the days-to-maturity exceeded the likely first frost date.  I did, in fact, successfully grow them.

I think I’ve learned the difference between “can” and “should” in this case.  I can direct-sow crops in late summer for a fall harvest.  But I’m not convinced that I should.  This year, that seems to have been a near-total waste of time. Either I have to start my fall garden in the heat of late July, or start the plants indoors for planting outside in late August.  Or just skip it.

Finally, with first frost, we are now starting the season of low indoor relative humidity.  As I have noted in many prior posts, I think that low relative humidity increases the spread of respiratory illness.   I believe that national heating and cooling experts say the same:

As of today, there’s scant indication that there will be any resurgence of COVID-19 this winter.  That said, I’m sticking to the plan.  I have a couple of hygrometers placed around my home.  (Why not?  They’re cheap.)  When indoor relative humidity dips below 40 percent, I’m going to drag my humidifiers out of the closet and get them running.  As with wearing a mask, or getting vaccinated, it’s just another harmless bit of cheap insurance against airborne illness.

Post #1310: What does 30 electrical miles get you?

 

We haven’t bought gasoline since mid-August, owing to my wife’s purchase of a Prius Prime.  That’s a plug-in (PHEV) version of the Prius, with a battery that’s good for about 30 miles.

It’s not like we stumbled into that purchase.  We researched the offerings available and decided that hit the sweet spot for us.  No range anxiety, no need to rewire the garage, and no need to mortgage the house if that big battery wears out.

And, as you can guess, it’s working out well.  We’re not avoiding traveling, it’s just that most of what we do seems to fit into that 30-mile-a-day limit.  Or nearly.

Which got me to wondering: Is our experience all that unusual?

I mean, people seen to think that little 30-mile battery isn’t much.  It’s certainly no Tesla, either for distance or acceleration, for sure.  But it’s not intended to be, and, from my perspective, that smaller battery is efficient.  Most people who drive a full EV aren’t going to use the full capacity of their battery on most days.

But with this PHEV setup — where the first 30 miles is electric, then it switches to gas — just how much gas would the average American save?

More precisely, how much would total U.S. private passenger vehicle gasoline consumption decline if the first 30 miles of everybody’s driving day were done on electricity?  As if everybody had a Prius Prime, but nobody could recharge mid-day.  And with no change in behavior otherwise.

Turns out that you can’t just look that up.

You can find some glib statistics on (e.g.) the fraction of individual car trips that are short.  And yeah, sure, most car trips are for just a few miles.  I don’t think anybody’s shocked by that. But that’s not the question.

So I turned to the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) to get an answer.  If you ever want to know anything about how Americans get from A to B, that’s the place to look.

I took their file of vehicle trips, reduced it to travel by private passenger vehicle (car, SUV, van, pickup), focused on the vehicle driver only (to avoid duplicating drivers and passengers), and summed up the total miles that each driver drove, each driving day.   That yielded about 150,000 distinct person-days of vehicle driving.  At that point, I (arithmetically) substituted up to 30 miles of that with electricity, and tabulated the results.

Source:  Calculated from 2017 NHTS trip file, weighted estimate.

And there’s your answer.  If you were to substitute the first 30 miles of everybody’s private vehicle driving-day with electrical transport, you’d reduce gasoline-powered miles by 55%.  That’s all the miles on days under 30 miles, and 41 percent of the miles on days over 30 miles.

The upshot is that with PHEV, that 30-mile battery is enough to cut average private-vehicle gasoline consumption more than in half.  All of that, without the truly huge batteries required for full EVs.  And without a whole new electrical infrastructure required to keep EVs going, at least for those of us who can recharge at home out of a standard wall socket.

So I’m back to where I ended up in my last post about electrical transport.  People seem to get all caught up in their underwear about this huge, dramatic, risky blah-blah-blah.

And it’s all nonsense.  If you have a standard outlet available, you have the option to shift most of your personal transportation to electricity.  Right now.  With absolutely no other change in your lifestyle.  And a Federal tax credit, to boot, depending on what you choose.

Well, OK, in truth, we have made a few lifestyle changes.  I buy fewer lottery tickets now.  But that’s probably a good thing.  Otherwise, except for remembering to plug it in, there’s no practical difference between our last (all-gas) car, and our current (nearly-all-electric) car.

And now, judging from the U.S. numbers, we’re probably not alone in terms of the advantages from that small PHEV battery.

Think of it as a case of diminishing returns.  Your first few miles of electric capability get the most bang-for-the-battery-buck.  Here’s the picture, same data source and analysis above, just plotted for PHEV batteries of various sizes.

Source:  Calculated from 2017 NHTS trip file, weighted estimate.

Sure, you can be a purist and insist on nothing but electrical travel.  And more power to you.  But even with zero change in behavior, and no mid-day charging, a PHEV with a modest battery size can get you a long way toward that goal.

Post #1308: Washington Post article on electric vehicles.

 

Today’s Washington Post had yet another article by somebody explaining why they didn’t by an electric car.

Am I the only one who finds that weird?  Do we see published stories about the great National Parks that the author hasn’t visited?  Detailed reviews of restaurants the author would have liked to have dined in?  Or travelogs about the wonderful luxury hotels they’ve driven by?

You get the drift.

And yet, “Why I didn’t/won’t/can’t/shan’t buy an EV” is a surprisingly robust genre.  Once you realize that it exists, you’ll soon see that it’s pretty common.

For this particular story, maybe it was the author’s high-anxiety writing style.  Maybe it was all the angst-y, over-the-top comments from the general public.

Or maybe I’d just had my fill of the unnecessary us-versus-them-ism.

Because, when you boil it down, there are two types of people in this world:  Those who divide people into two types, and those who don’t.

For whatever reason, I was motivated to leave a comment.  So here’s my comment on that WaPo article, copied in word for word.


There is a compromise: PHEV. That’s a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

My wife bought a Prius Prime.

We haven’t bought gas since the middle of August.

The Prius Prime is a nice balance of electric and gas. It has enough battery to do somewhere around 30 miles as a fully-capable EV. With no range anxiety. When the battery is discharged, it’s just a regular gas Prius.

It doesn’t have a huge battery. So it plugs into a regular 20 amp household circuit. And with that, it takes maybe five hours to recharge.

When you think about it, a huge battery is kind of a waste, most of the time. Most people do most of their driving pretty close to home. Give them a way to do the first 30 on electric, and you make a real dent in their gas use. Without demanding the materials needed for a 300-mile battery.

Anyway, it was the right choice for us.

We’ll probably fill the tank some time next month. Or maybe not. Depends.

I’m reading all this angsty stuff about the decision to go electric, and all I can say is, you’re making it way too hard.

Go look up what’s happened to the price of batteries over the past decade. There’s a reason that Tesla went from a rich man’s play toy to a car for the masses. It’s called a more-than-ten-fold reduction in the cost of batteries, over the last decade.

All this stuff about, Oh my God, the battery replacement will bankrupt us — that’s so last-generation. Look up the current data before you decide to stress about something that’s increasingly a non-issue.

Post #G21-056: First frost date trend and an outdated farmers’ market law in Vienna VA

 

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, our fall first-frost date has been getting later.

That’s not really a surprise.  Global warming and all that.  Temperatures are rising slightly in most of North America.  Among other things, the USDA hardiness zones have been shifting consistently northward.

The surprise here is the rate at which our first-frost date is changing.  In Fairfax County, it’s been getting later at the rate of about one day per year.  That may not not sound like much, but it means that our typical first-frost date is more than three weeks later than it was back in the 1990s.

I found that to be a surprisingly rapid change, so I thought I’d post it.

And then, maybe if I’m still feeling the math, I’ll work up the likelihood that this year will have the latest first-frost data on record for Fairfax County, VA.  But muse of math seems to have abandoned me, so that will have to be a separate Part II of this post. Continue reading Post #G21-056: First frost date trend and an outdated farmers’ market law in Vienna VA

Post #G21-055: The slow fall garden

 

Source:  Weather Underground, 10-day forecast for Vienna, VA accessed 10/19/2021.

This is the first year that I specifically planted vegetables in late summer, for fall harvest.

I didn’t adequately anticipate how slowly vegetables grow as we move into fall, here in Zone 7.  I’m still growing vegetables, but I’m certainly not growing a lot of vegetables.

Given that growth appears to have slowed to a crawl in my garden, I’d like to have some guess as to just how slow a crawl that is. Continue reading Post #G21-055: The slow fall garden

Post #G21-054: My first frost date will be late this year.

 

As fall progresses, it’s time to start looking out for the first frost.  For open-air gardeners, that’s when you either start hassling with some sort of overnight frost protection, or you call it quits for the year on any frost-sensitive plants.

I still have a lot of things growing in my garden that I would like to harvest before first frost.  These are plants that survived the summer (peppers, sweet potatoes) and vegetables planted specifically for fall harvest (lettuce, spinach, peas, green beans, eggplant).

For Vienna, VA, in Zone 7, first frost is expected on or about October 24 (Post #G21-052).  That’s the “30th percentile” first frost date.  Over the past three decades, first frost has occurred on or after that date 70 percent of the time.

As I noted in earlier posts, the “last spring frost” and “first fall frost” concepts are crude.  They are unconditional probabilities, that is, they simply summarize what occurred in the past.  They don’t account for the current weather this year, and they don’t account for the presence of long-term (e.g., ten-day) forecasts.

For the spring last frost date, the presence of good long-term (e.g., ten-day)  forecasts shifts the odds in your favor (Post #G21-005).  That happens because you won’t plant if frost is in the forecast.  That obvious observation converts the unconditional “30th percentile” spring date into a conditional “10th percentile” date.  Just by keeping an eye on the 10-day forecast in the spring, you can cut your odds of a post-planting frost from 30% to 10%.

The same should be true of the fall first-frost date, but without any significant real-world consequences.  As with the spring date, the current ten-day forecast should help you predict the first-frost date more accurately than the simple unconditional 30th percentile date.  But unlike spring, the plants are already in the ground.  This might give you a bit longer time to plan when to harvest the last of your garden, but that’s about it.

The statement above ignores the potential for significant predictive help from “seasonal forecasts”, which I take to mean forecasts of average weather conditions made months in advance.  There are a lot of issues there, the foremost of which being that these tend to be vague (e.g., the prediction will be whether or not a season will warmer or colder, wetter or dryer, than usual).

To put it plainly, even if the forecast is for a warmer-than-normal fall, nobody has done the analysis to translate that into a specific prediction for the fall first frost date.  It’s not even clear if it is feasible to do that.  And so, this year, the prediction is for a warm fall in this area (e.g., this reporting, or this reporting).  But I have no clue what that implies for first frost date.

You can access the official U.S. seasonal climate forecasts on-line.  As is the custom for the modern age, you can go play with them in an interactive map, courtesy of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, below:

Source:  NOAA.gov

NOAA says there’s a good chance that temperatures will be warmer than normal in my area.  I’m sure that’s helpful to somebody, but surely not to me.  I’m guessing that’s about as good as they can do, and, given the inherently (mathematically) chaotic nature of weather, that may be about as well as they will ever be able to do.

As a result, I’m not holding out much hope for a super-accurate seasonal forecast.  Instead, I’m sticking with the idea that the only actionable information is the current ten-day forecast.

Source:  The Weather Channel, accessed 10/11/2021.

Based on today’s ten-day forecast for my area, I have little to worry about regarding the 10/24 first frost date.

I’d like to ask a couple of questions, given this forecast, but I don’t have the data, and I don’t think I can get my hands on the data.  First, I’d like to know the odds that it actually will freeze on October 24th, given that the forecast low is in the high 40’s.  I would also like to estimate what the actual first frost date is likely to be, given this forecast.  Both of those would require having historical data on the 10-day forecasts.  And, while I’m sure that somebody has stored that information, there’s no way for me to get my hands on it.

In any case, this has almost zero practical importance.  The only change this makes in my gardening is for two remaining pumpkin plants that I was about to pull out.  These were late to set fruit, to the point where neither of them was going to be able to produce an edible pumpkin by October 24.  I was about to clear that bed and set that up for over-wintering.

But now, given this forecast for warmth almost two weeks into the future, I think I’ll let them go.  You never know what another couple of weeks of growing season might bring.

Post #G21-053: The 2021 canning lid shortage was never resolved.

 

I’m getting ready to can some pickled vegetables, so I decided to take one last look at the 2021 canning lid shortage.

Upshot: It’s a problem that was never resolved.  Even now, in most parts of the country, you aren’t going to be able to go to your local store and buy Ball wide-mouth canning lids.


A little history

I first stumbled across the pandemic-driven shortage of home canning supplies last year (Post #G12, July 2020).  At that point, I had to look around a bit to find wide-mouth jars.  I noted the logical progression from that year’s shortage of garden seeds, to last year’s shortage of common garden chemicals, to, inevitably, last year’s shortage of canning supplies.  By August 2020 stories about the canning supply shortage had gone mainstream (Post #G21, August 2020).

In 2020, a shortage didn’t really stand out.  The first pandemic year was rife with shortages of consumer goods.  (Fill in toilet paper joke here.)  A shortage of canning supplies was nothing unusual.  It was just one of many.

And it’s not as if a shortage of canning supplies had never happened before in the U.S.  During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and the resulting U.S. energy crises, Americans faced a shortage of canning lids (documented in Post #G21-003, March 2021).

The roots of that shortage were attributed to the same source as the modern shortage.  Insecure people instinctively turn to growing their own food, and as a result, there’s an increased demand for home canning supplies that can’t be met by the existing supply chain.

But I was more than a bit surprised to hear that there was still a shortage of canning lids in spring of 2021 (Post #G21-003, March 2021).  Seriously, that was then, this is now.  This is America.  We don’t do shortages.  I more-or-less laughed it off, figuring that once manufacturers started shipping product for the 2021 canning season, the shortage would disappear.  That, after pointing out how irrational the price of lids had become.  Vendors were asking more for twelve lids than for twelve jars — the joke being that jars come with lids.

My assumption that the early 2021 canning lid shortage would go away was dead wrong.  Except for a brief period this spring when the new shipments arrived for the 2021 canning season, canning lids have been in-and-out-of-stock ever since. 

It’s an odd sort of shortage, in that you can go on-line and order lids at any time.  So it’s not as if lids are unavailable.  It’s more that name-brand lids cost three times the pre-pandemic price.  So you either pay far more for lids, you make do with imported lids of dubious quality, or you switch to re-usable lids (Post #G21-010) of a sort that are not familiar to most canners.

Or, at a last resort, re-use your canning lids.  While I never had to do that, but I did check out the method of boiling used lids for 20 minutes.  That’s supposed to remove the groove in the silicone from the prior use, making them more nearly fit for re-use.  And my observation is that boiling them does, in fact, relax the old groove in the silicone sealing material, as shown in the contrast of an un-boiled and boiled used lid, below.

One final oddity of the U.S. situation is that we’re dealing with a monopoly supplier, more-or-less.  All of the familiar top-drawer brands of U.S. lids (Ball, Kerr, Golden Harvest) are made by one subsidiary of a corporate conglomerate (documented in Post #G21-009).  The history of the one U.S. lid manufacturer — bought and sold and re-sold — is like a short course in what has gone wrong with U.S. industry.

In the end, my summary is that Ball canning isn’t even rounding error on the bottom line of its current owner, Newell Brands.  They’re the only supplier of trusted domestic single-use canning lids.  And as a result, they may not have to care very much if they meet home canners’ needs or not.


Lid availability at start and end of 2021 U.S. canning season

As of today (10/9/2021), my local Warmart has wide-mouth Ball lids back in stock, at the normal price of about $0.30 per lid.  And while that’s great for me, and while I check my local stores periodically, that doesn’t really indicate what the lid situation looks like nationally.

In the spring, I took 20 randomly-chosen ZIP codes, and used the Walmart website to check local availability of wide-mouth Ball lids (Post #G21-025).  The results are shown below, with only 15% of stores having those lids in stock at that time.

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Source:  Analysis of search on the Walmart website, 20 randomly-chosen ZIP codes.

Mid-summer, I tried to repeat that.  But by mid-summer, Walmart had simply pulled the listing for Ball wide-mouth jars off their website entirely.  I couldn’t repeat the analysis because I could no longer search for that product on their website.

But now that item is back on the Walmart website.  And, while the format of the results has changed a bit, the bottom line remains just about the same.  At the end of the 2021 canning season, the vast majority of Walmarts have no Ball wide-mouth lids on the shelf.

Source:  Analysis of search on the Walmart website, 20 randomly-chosen ZIP codes.

One further interesting change is that Walmart won’t ship you three packages of lids, at a reasonable price, as they were sometimes willing to do back in the spring.  If the lids weren’t in stock, in every case, Walmart offered you a single internet vendor who would sell you wide-mouth lids for more than $1 each.

The bottom line is that the 2021 canning lid shortage was never resolved.  Near as I can tell, the situation at the end of the canning season is just about the same as it was this past spring.  In large parts of the country, you probably can’t go into your local stores and buy wide-mouth canning lids.

This has dropped out of national news entirely.  You’ll still see a tiny bit of reporting in areas where home canning is common, as in this August 2021 piece from Minnesota, or this farm-oriented article in June 2021.

I don’t know if there’s a larger lesson in this or not.  I had a reader email me about the monopoly-supplier aspect of this shortage (to which I am now sorry that I never replied).  The idea being that the concentration of market share into fewer and fewer hands, throughout the U.S. and global economies, is giving results that are not in consumers’ best interests.  While I’d certainly believe that monopolies are bad for consumers, I have no way to know whether the persistence of the shortage of this plain-vanilla, low-tech product is in any way related to the near-monopoly position of the Newell Brands conglomerate.

Canada, for example, seems to face the same monopoly supplier situation as the U.S., with the two major brands there (Bernardin, Golden Harvest) owned by Newell Brands (via its Jarden subsidiary).  And yet, despite monopoly supply there as well, there does not seem to have been a Canadian canning lid shortage.

So it remains a puzzle.  Going on two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s still hard to get hold of name-brand canning lids in the U.S.  Of all the shortages you might have expected, that has to be pretty close to the bottom of the list.  And yet, of all the shortages we faced, this seems to be among the most persistent.

If you want to see my list of what you can do if you can’t get Ball/Kerr/Golden Harvest lids, try the end of Post #G21-020.